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  • Writer's pictureDhruti Soni

Design, through India's perspective

Women & Design // Behind the Scenes

We're taught design in schools in India, from the perspective of western creatives. How can we build our story, tell our perspectives and truly understand what it means to be a creative in India if all we know is design through the perspective of another culture?

When you type "Indian Artists" into Google's search box, 51 creatives are named and highlighted. 10 among those 51 artists were females, and 0-6 out of those 51 artists were recognized.

A quote from one of our previous posts really got us thinking — "If art is a record of culture, and the art doesn't look like the culture, and the art is told only through the works of white males, that's basically what it is. It's the history of patriarchy, not the history of who we are." This got us starting to question our history, what we were seeing, hearing, and being told, and what we weren't. We all know the history of the Greeks and Romans, the journey of renaissance to baroque and neoclassicism. But what about India's history?

"Knowing your history can give you the tools to shape your future." — Gloria Feldt

Art & Design is an integral part of India and has been throughout history — from Kaavad and Bidriware to numerous pottery styles, the various crafts we have in India as says it all. Yet, if asked, not too many modern-day creatives would know about India's artistic evolutions off the top of their heads. But, we do know about Bauhaus and everything the Ancient Greeks & Romans went through. So, we're good... right?

Disclaimer: This article is solely me questioning life and things I see, hear and/or know of. I'm not talking about all modern-day creatives or all design schools here. I'm talking about the majority of us that remain clueless to our rich ancestry, and I'm one of these clueless creatives (sadly).

Lately, I've been questioning a lot of what I am seeing, and more importantly, what I'm not seeing — a result of multiple thought inducing conversations with fellow friends and designers. During one of our regular WID team calls, I went out on a whim and googled "Famous Indian Artists", and shockingly, a. I hardly recognized any of them and b. there were hardly any females mentioned. It bothered me that I hardly knew any, and if I did, it was through my own personal research or through conversations initiated with creatives I have met through Women In Design. Why wasn't I taught about these so called 'famous' artists during my time in design school?

I know enough about Picasso, Van Gogh or even Charles and Ray Eames, but if asked I wouldn't be able to name 10 Indian artists and designers off the top of my head!

My journey in design is rather uncommon; having studied design in a British school in Brunei, and 2 different institutions in India, it's been interesting to see the common approach with their own unique twists. Of course, my studies were relatively within the Industrial Product design realm of design, not having experienced the rest, I can only purely speak solely of my experiences. The most fascinating thing about both the Indian institutions was how different they were — while one focused heavily on industrially approved graphics, aesthetics and mostly the western history of design (Bauhaus, Charles and ray Eames, Karim Rashid and more), the other couldn't be more different allowing students more of an Indian influence on their works. It was in the second institution that I was exposed to the artistic richness India had to offer; in a design history course, I was learning about the differences between the Greeks and Romans and the Indus Valley Civilization. It was refreshing to learn about the differences in cultures, rather than just a singular version. If we aren't seeing multiple perspectives of a story, are we really being shown the whole story?

I was beginning to wonder if this was the case pan India, did you learn about our history and hear about the Indian perspective of design? Or have you only heard of the single widespread perspective. We decided to ask our community, and conducted a short survey in hopes of understanding if we were the anomalies, or whether India's perspective was an anomaly. Through our short survey on our platform, we asked 3 simple questions;

  1. How many of the artists shown did you know?

  2. Were you taught about Indian Creative history during your years at design school?

  3. How many crafts do you know? (without googling!)

A big thank you to everyone who contributed and answered the survey. The responses were varied, while some knew a bit more about our history, some weren't as aware.

Here's a brief summary of the responses.

How many of the artists shown did you know?

​As mentioned at the start of the article, 51 creatives were shown when you google "Indian Artists". We showed and asked our community the same. Majority only recognized 4-7 out of the 51 creatives shown. Roughly, only 11% of the creatives shown were recognized by the majority.

How many crafts do you know? (without googling it!!)

The final question was an open ended one, asking the respondents to name as many crafts or creatives they may know. Majority of the respondents (60%) could name 0-3 crafts, 30% of them knew 4-7 crafts, and only 10% were aware of 8-11 crafts off the top of their head. No more than 11 crafts could be named.

How many of the artists shown did you know?

There was a range of answers here, but the majority relied heavily on "no". The other answers were Yes (but unofficially) which amounted to 25% of the respondents, 75% of the respondents were not taught about Indian Creative History during their years at design school, in India, and 0.2% of the respondents were officially taught about the Indian creative history on the syllabus. Some were taught about Folk Art, while others on how to re-engineer Bengal Patua and Pattachitra.

Certain students took the initiative to question their professors about this "Nope and I asked my art history teacher about that! She said that was something she would eventually include but was restrained by traditional methods of teaching."

To our surprise, certain trainers and professors did help and pursue passing the knowledge on in their own time, "A couple of Professors took interest and tried on their own, but not as a formal subject."

Of all the above questions, the second one stuck with me the most. It surprises me that despite being a design school in India, none of them included it within their academic curriculums (based purely on the survey conducted and responses received), and only 25% of them had professors and students who took it upon themselves to find out more. Now, I'm sure there must be certain universities that stand for, and work hard on keeping our culturally rich history alive, and I'd love to know if yours is/was one of them. I would like to leave you with this;

Were you taught our creative history academically? Email us your answers, and let's get this conversation moving — which university did you go to, what was your experience like, what would you have liked to have been taught? We're open to your opinions. Design is rapidly growing in India, and in order to create a future sustainable for ourselves, we need to use tools that work for us. To do so, we need to know our history. Universities shaping the next generation of creatives should be responsible for informing us of all the different perspectives.

We're always open to other perspectives, opinions and a good chat over some coffee or tea. We'd love to host a conversation with you, head on over to our Discord and get in touch!

With 🧡 Team WID.


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